The UEFA Youth League never fails to bring out the best of Chelsea, and although their Quarter Final victory over Dinamo Zagreb featured plenty of bad, all the hallmarks of their successful history in the competition were front and centre when it mattered most.
Two-nil down with an hour played. Staring defeat in the face with fifteen minutes left. Even after captain Luke McCormick hauled them back into it, the odds were well against them, but this academy – more than the actual team – has unfinished business in Nyon, and weren’t to be denied. McCormick was there again at the death, as he so often is, to send it to penalties and give his team fresh life.
Karlo Žiger saved two spot kicks against many of his Croatian compatriots. Conor Gallagher scored a panenka. Marc Guehi found inspiration from Aritz Aduriz with his no-step effort. The moment wasn’t too big for them, and they’re going back to Switzerland again, with a rematch against Barcelona on the cards.
A year ago, Joe Edwards’ group won away to Real Madrid in the Quarter Finals to set up a Semi Final against Porto. Their form going into the match was far from stellar, and they toiled for much of the Porto contest, only emerging with a win on penalties after a last-gasp 2-2 draw. Sound familiar?
If they’re to avenge their Final humbling at the hands of Barcelona, then, they’ll need to improve considerably upon what was a very below-par display here at Cobham. Chelsea knew what Dinamo would bring to the table; 18 fouls and plenty of gamesmanship masked a defensive aggression and a maturity to their play that saw them deservedly eke out a late first-half lead before doubling it on the hour, both goals scored by the highly-rated Antonio Marin.
This was a shot at redemption for them too. They were kicked out of the 2015-16 edition despite reaching the last eight on the pitch, having fielded an ineligible player, and hadn’t come close to getting as far since. They overcame Liverpool to set up their trip to Chelsea, and now they were making the most of it.
The Blues didn’t play all that much better as they tried to mount a stirring comeback, but they produced character, and leaders stepped up when asked. George McEachran came off the bench to buzz around the midfield, freeing up Gallagher and McCormick to get into the box, while Tariq Lamptey found the substitute’s arrival much to his liking as they combined to good effect.
Lamptey won the free-kick that gave them a chance; McEachran feigned delivering it into a crowded area only to pull it back for an unmarked McCormick just outside it. He got it through the melee and goalkeeper Dinko Horkaš, 1-2.
Edwards has been superlative in his praise of the goalscorer since his return to the fold after suffering with a stress fracture of the back since August, and on this evidence it’s easy to see why. He found the late winner against Montpellier last month to win that tie and, with three minutes left, he rose highest and stayed longest to head Gallagher’s cross past the despairing Horkaš to equalise. Penalties, although only after Marijo Cuze went within inches of a dramatic last-minute goal himself.
Clear eyes, full heart, McCormick set the tone with the first successful spot kick, an immediate advantage as Bartol Franjić saw Žiger turn his try onto the post. Then came Gallagher’s and Guehi’s audaciousness, either side of Luka Pavlak keeping Dinamo alive. Joseph Colley had the courage to step up and score after a game in which he will be the first to admit he struggled, leaving Žiger to fling himself to his right to deny Roko Baturina. Relief, joy unabashed, but work still to do.
Chelsea haven’t forgotten UEFA’s decision not to allow them to defend their double crown in 2016-17, and they haven’t forgotten the bitter taste of defeat in last year’s finale. They want the Lennart Johansson trophy back in their newly-expanded trophy cabinet, and it would take a brave person to bet against them.
Chelsea: Žiger, Lamptey, Colley, Guehi, Maatsen, Gilmour, Gallagher, McCormick (c), Redan, Brown (McEachran 58), Castillo.
Subs not Used: Tié, Mola, Lavinier, Nunn, Lawrence, Lewis.
Goals: McCormick 77, 87
Booked: Lamptey, Maatsen
GNK Dinamo: Horkaš (c), Hrvoj, Antovski (Radonja 37), Franjić, Gvardiol, Šutalo, Marin, Gjira (Pavlak 84), Šipoš (Kocar 79), Julardžija (Baturina 79), Cuze.
Subs not Used: Josipović, Rešetar, Kapitanović.
Goals: Marin 41, 57
Booked: Julardžija, Gjira, Kocar